The Cybertooth Project: An Interview with Creator Zak Hennessey
I first met Zak Hennessey many years ago over a shared pastime: pen and paper role-playing games. Not only did he exhibit some impressive storytelling talents by running some of the best original scenarios our game table has ever seen, he added an amazing visual aspect to the games by drawing our characters and illustrating both key scenes and “what if” parody images. It came as no surprise, then, to find out that he was a comic book creator.
Though it’s been a long time since those game nights, the Colorado resident and I have kept in touch through the interwebs and the occasional convention-related visits, reminiscing about those long nights of dice-rolling and sharing stories of our new projects. Zak’s latest comic book creation, The Cybertooth Project, is an exciting new foray into the world of digital comics for him, and one that is set to be the cornerstone of his new publishing company, Biotoxic Studios. In-between prepping this new series for launch and the varied demands of running his own independent comic book company online, he answered a few questions about his new project and the decision to move into digital publication.
RBL: So, let’s start off with the basics. What is The Cybertooth Project about?
ZH: Imagine a future where the only real power is controlled by massive corporations. Countries and governments have little real power. The people are divided between a few super wealthy individuals who own everything, and the starving masses who desperately try to scratch out a living. I know that’s hard to imagine, right? That could never happen. But let’s pretend.
Anyway, a pair of brilliant roboticists working for the world’s largest weapons corporation create a combat robot so advanced that the best Artificial Intelligence programs available can’t fully utilize it. Before they can create a brain for the robot (Cybertooth), however, a new Board of Directors steps over the smoking ashes of their predecessors, seizing power and closing the program in favor of their own pet projects. Cybertooth is forgotten. But Dr. Daidala, one of his creators, steals him and continues to work on him in secret. Unfortunately, he is dying, so the clock is ticking. Desperate, he hires his niece, a genetically modified corporate spy/assassin/infiltrator, to break into his old job and steal a vital component for his work. Her Sisterhood forbids moonlighting, but she does it for her uncle in secret. Naturally, they find out and send other Sisters after her for breaking the rules. Amidst all of this, Dr. Daidala wakes Cybertooth, whose first exposure to the world is witnessing corporate soldiers coming to retrieve him, and killing everything in their way. And that’s where the fun starts.
RBL: Tell us a little bit about your primary characters in the comic, and how they relate to each other.
ZH: Cybertooth is a large combat robot with a new, inexperienced brain. His programming is mostly strategic and aggressive, but with Dr. Daidala’s tinkering, he is given a form of sentience. There are a lot of parallels with Frankenstein’s Monster that I will definitely be alluding to in the series, but Cybertooth is his own character.
Dr. Daidala helped create Cybertooth, and made the brain that gives him awareness.
Malady is his niece, and the main female protagonist. Her genetic modifications give her superior strength, agility, intelligence and speed, and she is a weapons expert. She works for Hecate, an organization that provides specialized mercenaries and assassins to anyone who can afford their services.
Gunmetal Blue is her best friend in Hecate, but when Malady breaks the rules, Blue is ordered to take a squad of Sisters and hunt her down. The fight scene is already written, and it’s going to be insane.
Torque is a brilliant robot mechanic who works for Dr. Daidala.
There are more, but those are the primary characters of the first episode. There is also a FREE Promotional digital comic book you can download that tells you a lot about the series and has some really great artwork that you can check out.
RBL: How did you come up with the idea for this digital comic?
ZH: It all started as a hand-drawn birthday card for a girl I liked in school. I thought a drawing of a big robot with a big gun would impress her. Then, over the years, a story grew around the robot, getting bigger and bigger as the years passed. In the twenty years since I drew that first image, a huge and complex story grew. It’s been on a back burner for a long time, since I’ve been busy working on movies and other forms of entertainment media. But after ten years away from comics, I’ve decided to try and create another series. Hopefully it will all pay off and Cybertooth will come to life and entertain millions. My ideas and drawings have been making other people a lot of money. I’d like to see if I can do the same for myself now. It’s not really about the money though, but it would be nice to do this for a living.
RBL: You’ve decided to take the Kickstarter road to finance The Cybertooth Project. How did you come to that decision?
ZH: I needed some capital to do some photo shoots with a few great models that will be portraying some of the characters, to attend conventions, and to market the book. Kickstarter gave me a great option to allow potential fans to donate money to the project in exchange for some exclusive prizes that I will only be giving to people who support us via Kickstarter. Everything from original art to exclusive signed prints to limited edition photos of the models in costume. These are prizes that people who were here from the beginning can show as proof that they were supporters all along. Collector’s items that will hopefully one day be very rare and valuable. Things that I would love to see a fan bring to me ten years from now, when the series is huge. There will always be a special place in my heart for those who help make this happen.
RBL: Why a digital comic instead of the traditional printed paper route?
ZH: I could rant on this for hours. I’ll just say that with printed comics, the creative team does the bulk of the work and the publisher pays the bulk of the bills, and there is no guarantee that they will ever make any real money back. The printers and distributors get their money regardless. The retailer gets the largest cut of the cover price on every sale. But the people making the product don’t see a penny of profit until after all the printing and advertising and talent bills are paid. An independent publisher may never see a profit. Diamond (Distributor) doesn’t have time to humor small publishers and won’t even listen to you if your sales fall below a certain dollar amount. Few retailers can afford to take a risk on a new book from a new publisher because they’re struggling to keep their doors open. That’s a broken system.
I have a deal with a digital distributor (Graphic.ly) that gives me the greatest percentage of the cover price, with NO printing costs, and NO money going to middle men. They take a moderate percentage, handle all the sales, and cut me a check so I can focus on just doing the art. Digital comics allow the creators to make the money for their products instead of everyone else taking a cut along the line from drawing table to a reader’s hands. And I can sell a book for $0.99 to $1.99 and still make a pretty good profit, which I could NEVER do in print. With many publishers, the artists – the very people creating the books – never get paid or get paid very little! Another sign of a broken system.
Also, beyond the boring business/finances side of things, a digital comic is ALWAYS available to any new fan, anywhere in the world, at any time. They no longer have a one month shelf life. There is no longer the problem of a store being out of the book and not being able to get re-orders. A fan can get the entire series of a book in a matter of minutes. And for a new company, having a book always available is a HUGE benefit. I might be lucky if a store ordered one copy of my book, which might end up in one fan’s hand. Then I have to hope he/she tells friends. But once that one comic is purchased, nobody else going into that store will ever know it existed if it’s no longer on the shelf.
I could go on and on… I guess in summary, digital printing is the only way the artist makes any money outside of working for one of the big two or maybe one of the five or six after them. It will allow for more people to see their dreams come true. It’s less expensive for everyone.
Plus, if enough people follow my book, it will allow me to put out a collected graphic novel in print once I have enough issues complete.
RBL: So, you’re the creator, artist, writer… Is there any hat you don’t wear?
ZH: There are a few people out there spreading the word, but other than that, I’m the entire publishing company and creative team rolled into one. I don’t really want it to be that way, but until I start to turn a profit and can hire competent people, it’s just me. I’ve tried working with other artists, writers, promoters, business partners, etc., but finding reliable, talented people willing to work for free is no easy feat. I usually get a lot of promises and no work. In the end, trying to work with others has only set me back, because when they don’t come through, I then have to roll their unfinished work into my own, which hurts me more than if I had just planned to do it all myself.
But then, I prefer working on my stuff over someone else’s. I know what I want and can put more into it. Someone would have to be incredibly awesome or the money would have to be really good for me to do a book written by somebody else.
One of my goals for my company, though, is to make enough to bring new talent in. More artists to draw my other stories. Writers and artists that can team up to create things that I’ll help publish. But that’s a bit down the road.
RBL: You have two very lovely ladies attached to The Cybertooth Project. Who are they, and what’s their involvement with the series?
ZH: Yes I do. And they are awesome.
First is a model going by the name Projekt Malice. Sorry, can’t tell you her real name. She had modeled for me on a prior project, so when I decided on a look for the main female character in Cybertooth, I contacted her to see if she was interested. Thankfully she was, and once things got rolling and she saw it was a legitimate project and I wasn’t some creeper (she gets a lot of creepers, as you might imagine), she jumped in with both feet and has been incredibly enthusiastic ever since. She’s going to be the perfect fit for Malady, the character she’s modeling for. You can see more of her in her gallery at our website.
Next is Azalea D’vouxe (again, real name withheld) who is playing another of the main characters in the story. I actually found her on Facebook, via Malice. She had a great profile pic, so I went to see if she had any modeling experience, and she did. And her photos were great. I swear she’s a chameleon – she can change her look to be whatever she needs to be, which is awesome. I can’t wait to see her as her character Gunmetal Blue. She also has a gallery at our website.
RBL: Who else do you have attached to the series, and do you have plans to feature other talent, too?
ZH: The next person to come on board was a local Denver DJ who goes by the name “Uncle Nasty.” He’s been a very recognizable voice here for decades over the air waves, and also happens to look like one of my characters, Torque. Nasty did the narration on a video we put together for Kickstarter.
Three more models have joined the project as well. Big names in their areas. I’ve received the paperwork from both Kittie Infected and Miss Katonic, and am finalizing paperwork with an enthusiastic TripleSix. I’ll be doing some special spotlight features on them pretty soon over at our web site.
Do I expect to feature other talent in the future? Sure, if the series is a hit and really takes off. I have the people I need for the first five or six episodes right now, but I know I’ll be needing more. I’ll definitely need more Agents of Hecate, and I’ll probably do a talent search for that, but the details haven’t been worked out yet. That should be a lot of fun. Something to get the readers involved. I want to do a lot of things that involve the readers.
RBL: What are your plans for The Cybertooth Project? Are we talking miniseries here, or an open-ended series?
ZH: There is a definite ending to the series. But I don’t know how long it will take to get here. The story keeps growing. I’ll tell the story that needs to be told. I won’t throw in empty filler to extend it, but if a character demands expanded attention, and it adds to the story, I’ll do it. I came up with the ending probably fifteen years ago, and it hasn’t changed. It’s gotten better, but the core of the ending has been in place for a long time. It’s the stuff between the first issue and the last issue that has gotten more complex and involved. There will probably be two or three graphic novels worth of issues that I will collect and print before it’s over.
RBL: Do you have any other projects in the works?
ZH: A little over ten years ago, I printed my first comic series, LAZARUS: The Many Reincarnations, through my old publishing company, Lodestone Publishing. I made a lot of mistakes back then, was rushed on deadlines, and wasn’t as strong an artist back then. But the book still got some great reviews despite few people ever hearing about it. I’m in the middle of remastering those issues and putting them up for sale digitally. The first two issues are currently available, and the third will be available soon. I am redrawing a lot of faces, some panels I really didn’t like, and in some cases entire pages. And I am coloring the whole thing over because… well… I was never happy with what I had back then. It was too rushed. But the new stuff is looking great, and I’m much happier with it. Sure, I wouldn’t be completely satisfied unless I redrew the whole thing, but that’s not going to happen, and the pages are looking really strong with my improvements, so I’m pleased with what I’m publishing. It’s a lot closer to what I had originally envisioned for the book.
I have more ideas in my head than I can probably ever do myself, which is why I’d like to make a bunch of money and hire great artists to help me bring my other stories to life. I’d love to work with people I’ve followed for years in the industry, my favorite artists. But that all depends on the financial health of the company. We’ll see.
RBL: Awesome! Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions.
ZH: Thanks for taking the time to ask them.